TransCanada's safety promises draw scrutiny even as they multiply

This story was updated at 1:25 p.m. EDT.

The company behind Keystone XL yesterday disputed a claim that federal regulators imposed new safety mandates on its contentious, long-delayed pipeline in response to repairs conducted along the project's southern leg -- without drawing attention to an array of spill-prevention measures that it vowed to consider following a third-party risk analysis supported by U.S. EPA.

TransCanada Corp. pushed back at an Associated Press report that connected two extra conditions imposed on KXL by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to welding failures that the agency found last year on the Canada-to-U.S. project's 485-mile southern segment. The AP report's depiction of KXL as uniquely singled out is "not correct," TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata wrote in a memo to reporters, pointing to a PHMSA quote that notes the two new mandates "reflect learnings from pipeline projects across the business, not just Keystone XL, and are being placed on similar projects across the United States."

Beyond the independent construction monitor and new "quality management program" required by PHMSA and highlighted by the AP, the State Department wrote in its January environmental review of KXL that TransCanada also has voluntarily "committed to implement" a host of new standards stemming from a third-party engineering analysis of pipeline safety risks that EPA last year urged State to publicly release.

Sheremata confirmed via email that the company is in the midst of crafting “appropriate enhancements to its oil spill risk and consequence assessment in response to those recommendations.”


The third-party engineering report, written by private firms Battelle Memorial Institute and Exponent, urges TransCanada to go beyond current PHMSA regulations and increase the number of in-person inspection patrols as well as remote leak-detection tools used to identify leaks along KXL's 1,179 miles.

"Spills of about 1,400 barrels could be detected within 2 hours under [TransCanada]'s current detection commitment" for the $5.4 billion KXL, the State Department wrote in its summary of the Battelle and Exponent risk recommendations. "Reasonable expectations based on unpublished data suggest that this volume could be reduced to several hundred barrels detected within 45 minutes."

Performing on-the-ground surveys along the pipeline's route every two weeks, the minimum frequency required under current law, "is largely ineffective" and carries "about a 90 percent chance of non-detection" of oil leaks, according to research cited by the pipeline's independent risk reviewers.

In addition to altering its emergency response plans "to include more frequent inspections or the use of advanced or improved leak prevention/detection tools," the State Department wrote that TransCanada also agreed with a third-party recommendation to add specific cleanup plans for "submerged oil, floating oil, and cold-weather" spill situations, in addition to the prospect that spilled oil could mix with sediment. That recommendation mirrors one offered last year by EPA before Battelle and Exponent released their findings.

Another third-party recommendation TransCanada promised to address would commit the company to providing alternative water sources to localities affected by a spill under "an appropriate written agreement with" EPA, State wrote in its final environmental review. Still another recommendation the KXL operator agreed to consider would involve more information sharing on the naphthenic acid content of the oils the pipeline would carry, given that chemical's potential toxicity to marine environments.

TransCanada included external temperature sensors on the 485-mile southern leg of KXL before it began operations earlier this year following initial resistance to the technology's efficacy for the controversial northern portion of the pipeline (Greenwire, Nov. 13, 2013). Such automated leak detection methods were also singled out by Battelle and Exponent as potentially beneficial for the entirety of KXL.

"TransCanada is implementing a construction quality and integrity program like none before," Sheremata wrote yesterday. "To protect the public and its assets, TransCanada is going the extra mile to make sure it has the safest pipeline that technology and high operating standards can deliver. We are proud of this and it's worth noting that many of the practices we have adopted are not required by regulation -- but are standard practice on all TransCanada pipeline construction projects."

PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill concurred with Sheremata’s description of the two new federally mandated safety standards for KXL as prompted by the “hundreds of hours inspecting various pipeline construction techniques” spent by agency officials, not exclusively by the welding problems detected on the pipeline’s southern leg.

Twitter: @eschor | Email:

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